Abzan. Jeskai. Mardu. The Khans of Tarkir wedges dominated the first weeks of post-rotation Standard. The wedges provide clear homes to desirable new cards like Siege Rhino, Mantis Rider, Butcher of the Horde, and Crackling Doom, cards that everyone has been itching to play. These cards are popular for a reason, and they offer an incredible power and efficiency not often seen in new cards. The triple-color requirements of the wedge cards forces players that want to use them through a hoop and into a particular card set , but it allows the cards to be aggressively costed compared to cards in fewer colors. Cheaper means more efficiency, greater game impact, more tournament playability and greater potential application in a variety of archetypes. The contributions of three colors of mana leads to versatility and power from having multiple abilities and effects on a single card.
Midrange decks in particular have been the most successful versions of wedge strategies. Midrange decks are essentially just decks that operate on the middle of the mana curve and fight a fair game. They are focused on fighting over card advantage and board position. They focus on flexible cards that are effective both offensively and defensively, the rare wedge creatures fall into this category.
Even relatively aggressive wedge decks like Abzan Aggro, Mardu with Hordeling Outburst, and the new breed of Temur deck are firmly midrange; the distinct lack of aggressively-focused one-drops and the inclusion of 5-casting cost cards, and the inclusion of multiple come-into-played tapped lands differentiates this from traditional aggressive strategies and "Zoo" decks.Shifting Gears
Midrange decks are able to shift gears between aggressor or defender on a turn-by-turn basis, absorbing and reacting to each new piece of friendly and opposing information by subtly altering its own position in a game. Consider the implications and decisions trees accompanying cards like the Charms, Dig Through Time, and Courser of Kruphix plus fetchlands.Scry 1
Midrange decks are full of efficient threats and disruption. They combine removal spells with powerful threats. This rock-like nature means they can be susceptible to drawing cards in the wrong order and having the wrong tool at the wrong time. The importance of card selection to midrange strategies cannot be overlooked. One of the finest midrange decks in history, Caw-Blade, used Preordain as the grease that kept everything running smoothly and ensured relevant draw steps. These days quality card selection is a bit more balanced, and the scry lands fill the role. Scry 1 effects throughout the game, on the back of somewhere in the range of three to nine scry lands, gives midrange decks card selection velocity from the first turns of the game all the way to lategame topdeck situations. The subtle improvement of draws through the game provided by scry triggers has a subtle positive impact that compounds throughout a game to give the midrange deck a card-quality advantage over opponents lacking the same level of card selection.
Midrange cards are also versatile in a strategic sense.Burn
Burn spells are an important part of red-based wedge strategies, and they have a dual-nature as creature removal and as a win condition. Creatures are ubiquitous throughout the major decks in the format, and burn is most often used as a functionally adequate if not efficient form of creature removal
Cards like Lightning Strike and Stoke the Flames are the best burn spells, in part because they are quite efficient as creature removal because they are capable of generating tempo by killing a more expensively-costed creature. Burn spells also offer great extra reach if not a main game plan in any given matchup, and the greater a spell's raw damage output the more effective the card is in the finishing role.
Crater's Claws has recently been gaining serious traction in the format, and while it's not particularly efficient creature removal, it's flexible, and with no upward limit it's quite a powerful finisher. The Ferocious clause is also relevant and makes it situationally more powerful as a finisher than past red X-spells. Note that burn spells have a third practical role as removal for the planeswalkers that fill the ranks of midrange decks. Thoughtseize
Thoughtseize is strategically versatile because it reveals otherwise hidden information to provide a complete snapshot of the opponent's current situation, paired with the ability to disrupt the opponent's game plan at its controller's discretion. It's also ideal for protecting one's own gameplan. With a nearly-restrictionless range, Thoughtseize is quite a powerful effect and useful tool for midrange wedge decks. It's a proactive piece of disruption that's relevant as early as the first turn but maintains value as the game goes on. Thoughtseize is at its best when disrupting opposing midrange decks, ideally removing the opponent's only option at a specific slot on the mana curve, with the aim of forcing them to pass without a play on a specific turn for a massive tempo loss. Thoughtseize is a key card in black midrange decks, though results have proven it's not necessarily a maindeck requirement and may be just as effective from the sideboard.Planeswalkers
Planeswalkers are at the core of the midrange ethos; these cards come with multiple uses and thus versatility by being excellent in various tactical and strategic situations; their repeatable effects combined with game-ending ultimates make planeswalkers quite powerful. Both Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker are incredibly high-impact planeswalkers that find themselves in a variety of wedge Midrange decks, sometimes side-by-side. Planeswalkers are difficult to protect, but Midrange decks are built to shield their planeswalkers with lots of board presence and disruption. In fact, I'd argue that a significant driving factor behind the success of midrange decks since the introduction of planeswalkers is that midrange decks have been best able to incorporate and utilize planeswalker cards. Nearly all of the top-tier midrange decks in the format utilize planeswalkers in some way.Midrange in the Metagame
Midrange decks are not particularly focused on speed, nor quantity, but rather quality. These wedge decks thrive off of the high individual card efficiency that their cards provide. With a deep pool of quality cards from which to draw tools, wedge decks offer a great deal of potential customization in their strategies and builds. This leads to an agile position in the metagame; the wedge decks are flexible and able to evolve with the developing metagame, and furthermore are able to quickly react to any abrupt metagame changes. This phenomenon has been seen most of all in Jeskai Tempo, which has positioned itself on all parts of the aggro-control continuum. It's succeeded in builds ranging from an aggressive flyers deck, a burn deck, a Brimaz, King of Oreskos-centric deck with God's Willing, all the way to a board sweeper control deck with End Hostilities.
The wedges are safe and stable places to be, but in some sense they are a crutch because they force players into a specific set of obviously powerful cards. Especially for early tournaments like the Pro Tour, it seemed to be easier to play a surely acceptable wedge strategy than to explore uncharted waters and dig for hidden synergies that lied beneath the veneer of the Khans of Tarkir wedges. Midrange is here to stay, but they can be beat.Temur Monsters
The newest Midrange wedge deck of note is Temur Monsters, which has been gaining traction in the metagame, culminating in a very strong performance at GP Santiago with three copies in the Top 8:
Strategically, this deck is relatively straightforward and particularly aggressive compared to traditional green Standard midrange decks. Creatures like Savage Knuckleblade and Boon Satyr and the excellent finisher Crater's Claws simply lend themselves towards an aggressive focus. The deck leans on some mana acceleration, but unlike traditional green Midrange decks that use Sylvan Caryatid to protect their planeswalkers and life total, Temur Monsters plays the aggressive Rattleclaw Mystic.
Notice that the sideboard plays cheap and efficient, specifically narrow but powerful cards. This deck is never looking to dramatically alter its strategy with sideboarding like other midrange decks, but rather tune itself as a leaner fighting machine for a given matchup.Back to Theros
There has been a turn of events, and the latest Standard results have revealed some forgotten strategies revolving around Theros-based synergy mechanics including Heroic and constellation.Jeskai Ascendancy Heroic Combo
Jeskai Ascendancy Heroic Combo is in my opinion the most exciting deck to come out of Khans of Tarkir Standard and has potential to warp the format. This deck combines the Retraction Helix-centric combo kill found in the traditional Sylvan Caryatid-based Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck with an aggressive Heroic creature core that benefits from the enchantment during fair games. At the SCG Standard Open last weekend, Ivan Jen dominated the field with his deck all the way through to the finals and his ultimate victory:
The spells required to trigger the Heroic mechanic lend themselves quite effectively to triggering Prowess, so it is possible to create a creature core of Heroic and Prowess creatures that thrive off of the same shared spell base. The new Prowess creatures Monastery Swiftspear and Seeker of the Way join Heroic all-star Akroan Crusader, the reliable Favored Hoplite, and roleplayer Lagonna-Band Trailblazer. The kicker is that Jeskai Ascendancy triggers from the same suite of spells, and its effect of giving +1/+1 to the team is effectively identical to Prowess and thus fits hand-in-hand with the creature base and general strategy. The fact that the majority of spells are card drawing cantrips or have scrying ensures the deck will have plenty of gas to keep the engine cycling.
Jeskai Ascendancy is especially dirty with Akroan Crusader. A chain of Heroic triggers and +1/+1 buffs to a growing team of hasted Soldier Tokens will quickly prove lethal. In practice, each additional Heroic-triggering spell will increase the size of the current team before adding another token, and after a handful of spells it quickly compounds into a lethal amount of damage.
This deck also comes with a bonafide combo finish. Retraction Helix does a fine Disperse impersonation while triggering Heroic, but it can be reused and repeated for value when combined with Jeskai Ascendancy. This turns into a combo when Springleaf Drum and another creature are added to the equation. Springleaf Drum can make a mana, the Retraction Helix creature bounces Springleaf Drum, allowing it to be replayed untapped, which triggers Jeskai Ascendancy, which will untap the creature carrying the Retraction Helix ability and a creature to be tapped for mana. The net result of this, in addition to the team of creatures being grown by +1/+1 each turn, is cycling through and number of cards desired, which combined with any extra mana and cards in hand will quickly lead to insurmountable advantage if not an immediate kill.
This deck is not quite as efficient as a pure Heroic aggro deck, nor will it combo finish as reliably as the traditional Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck, but its internal synergies, strategic flexibility, proactive nature, and overall high raw power make it a force to be reckoned with. This deck may appear to be weak against creature removal and sweepers, but it offers a ton of redundancy in its creature core and spell suite. Gods Willing is effectively a Counterspell against removal and a great tempo play, and it's crucial for protecting the creatures critical to this deck's strategy. Akroan Crusader is impressive for its ability to quickly Rebuild a team and even potentially win immediately from an empty board. In a memorable Top 8 match, Jens found his board wiped clean by Doomwake Giant, only to win on the following turn by playing and abusing Akroan Crusader with Jeskai Ascendancy.The Long Whip of Erebos
Graveyard strategies have been gaining traction over the past few weekends as a way to overpower midrange. The defining factor of these decks is the engine of Whip of Erebos creating massive value from the graveyard, powered by the cog of Sylvan Wayfinder. Murderous Cut is another payoff for abusing the graveyard, and as a versatile removal spell capable of generating massive tempo, it's a crucial tool for these decks and a payoff worth working for.
These decks come in different varieties, and the most popular version, Sultai Reanimator was debuted at the Pro Tour by Christian Seibold, who went on to Top 8 GP Stockholm. Willy Edel has taken the deck further, all the way to the Top 8 of GP Santiago:
Lukas Blohon took Golgari Constellation to a high finish at GP Stockholm, and based on last weekend's SCG Open results, which saw three copies in the Top 8, it's a new major player in the metagame. This deck goes further than a pure graveyard deck by also including an enchantment package that powers Constellation cards and generates a ton of value. This deck has a snowball capability, and once the gears start moving the deck will increasingly generate value and simply bury the opponent with an insurmountable lead.
This Abzan version from the GP Santiago T8 pushes the power level to the max and includes the innovative Soul of Theros for value from beyond the grave:
Midrange decks are simply unable to keep up with the value a card like Whip of Erebos provides. Midrange decks are also typically not particularly fast at closing out the game, and graveyard decks capitalize on this fact by taking their time to assemble a critical mass of cards to work with.
While Midrange is a safe and stable place to be, there is a lot of reason to explore beyond and into the world of synergy. The Heroic Combo deck and Whip of Erebos strategies fight against the format on a different axis than the midrange decks, and rather than falling into midrange's frame, they play their own game and present their own unique questions that midrange has a hard time answering. Standard is neither stale nor solved and it's not slowing down. Share your thoughts on the format in the comments. I'll try to answer any questions!